where life's not empty, it's restless.

Seattle Chill

Months ago, I sat down to write about the Seattle Chill, that social coolness that people new to our town find so perplexing. I found myself squirming as I wrote, because I realized I was describing myself.

Recently, I was asked to take a personality test, something I’ve long resisted. I learned, among other things, that I’m the type of introvert often mistaken for an extrovert.  This insight came as a great relief to me. It made me feel like I’m not a bad person for needing time alone, especially if I’ve been super-social—it’s just the way I’m wired. And I would venture this: Seattle is full of people like me. We can rally and behave like extroverts when we need or want to, but because we are true introverts, we just can’t keep it up all the time.

We’re good at cordial. Not so good at gregarious. Good at meeting for coffee, not so quick to extend that first invitation to dinner. As a Seattle native whose roots are mostly Scandinavian, I can play the old ethnic card. Taciturn Finns, somber Swedes—they are my people. And it is true the early Scandinavian settlers set the local social thermostat at a level that matched the climate: cool, with occasional slightly warm periods.

But there’s a twist to this story: I think a lot of the people who move here and complain about the Chill also take advantage of it to excuse behavior they wouldn’t get away with back home. They secretly like this license we give them to be socially lazy. Maybe they left their hometowns and moved to this far Northwest corner to get away from social and family obligations. So they embrace customs we natives might describe as cordial but on the cool side and take them right into the deep freeze. They out-chill the Seattle Chill, and then blame it all on us.

This could be wildly unfair. What I’m describing could be more of a generational change, related more to all the ways we now communicate online and how that shift has affected our in-person interactions.

But, ever the optimist, here’s my hope: that conversations about the Seattle Chill and what, if anything, we can do about it will turn us toward each other, not further away.

In my new neighborhood, people are starting to gather on Fridays in our small central park. It’s a little awkward, but it’s a start. A welcome change from last fall, when, shortly after we moved here, I went to the neighborhood trail-building work party and found myself taking it personally that no one introduced themselves to me, as we hoisted buckets of gravel up and down the muddy slopes.

I remember tried to have a private laugh about it as I walked home; trying to chalk it up to the Seattle Chill, even though my Seattle grandma would have called it plain old bad manners.

However: you never would have caught her at a neighborhood picnic in a public park, let alone a trail-building work party. So maybe we are making a little progress. Maybe we should cut ourselves some slack, newcomers and natives alike. Give ourselves time, accept that there will be awkwardness, as we learn how to warm up.

Here’s a link to my article, “Laughter and Forgetting,” in Seattle Met Magazine. 

Our film, Quick Brown Fox: an Alzheimer’s Story is now available on Hulu, Amazon and other digital sites.

Radio lovers: you can hear the Restless Nest commentaries every Tuesday at 7:50 a.m., Thursdays at 4:54 p.m. and Fridays at 4:55 p.m. on KBCS, streaming online at and on the air at 91.3 in the Seattle area.  Podcasts available.

Here’s nest artist Kim Groff-Harrington’s website.

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3 thoughts on “Seattle Chill

  1. I remember talking about the “Seattle freeze” in a room of Seattle native friends – none of us knew what it was. I guessed it might be the difference between polite and gregarious. I love your insight into it giving people permission to be reclusive (or socially lazy)! I remember hearing an East coast friend lament that it was a year before she saw the inside of any of her neighbors’ houses. It never would have occurred to me to invite a near stranger over for dinner! I saw how warm and welcoming that could be, once she brought it up, but it felt too familiar – my home too private – for me to extend that invitation before I’d known someone a little while.

    It was at a taco truck that I suddenly realized what people were talking about when they said “Seattle freeze.” I asked a taco truck-related question of a couple eating at the same table. They replied that they didn’t know, then averted their eyes. It wasn’t as if I expected or wanted an extended conversation, but I wanted a little bit more – a sentence, a smile – before politely returning to our companions and our meals. It was as if my speaking to them made them nervous. It seemed like an overreaction to me, but who hasn’t experienced the unwanted conversation with a stranger that dragged on and on? Maybe Seattlelites, being polite and reserved, have more trouble extracting themselves from such situations, and so, are more reticent to enter into them.

    I love Seattle and its people, but I have been pleasantly surprised by how friendly people seem in Western NY. I will always be a Seattlelite, though.

  2. Thank you, Ann, for this.

    As a gregarious person who grew up on the warm strands of Aloha, I found the NW a difficult place to connect even after 10 years. I realized early on that it was Scandinavian culture that I needed to embrace, but even being christened with a Norwegian name and northern European heritage didn’t help. It was still impossible for me to constrain myself within the “norms” of what you aptly term the “Seattle Chill”, as hard as I tried. It may have something to do with why I was dubbed “honorary Portaguee” in high school.

    Seattle – Beautiful place, lovely people, but, to me, a disconnected culture that becomes further divided with its embrace of electronic technology. And then there’s the all-too-familiar divisive politics and polarized leadership that challenges our entire nation. Add weather that keeps everyone indoors, isolated and introverted and it’s hard for newcomers to find cohesive, warm community even after 10 years. And there are so many newcomers, the city has grown so fast especially in the last two decades. It will take time for an open culture of inclusion to develop, if it ever does. But I think it’s coming. That’s my take on it.

    So I’ll brave the hot and humid breezes in a different crowd of humanity in Honolulu that has grown even more quickly than Seattle since my youth. The incongruous mix of cultures is staggering (officially the most diverse place in the country, if not the world), reflecting continuous changes over the last two centuries. Most people don’t realize that this city is older than Seattle, Portland or even San Francisco, and possibly L.A., with all the historical significance that carries with it. Most people don’t take the Islands seriously, with real people and real problems – like importing over 85% of our food because large real estate interests have “ag land” all sown up.

    We’re not talking tourist playground here. There are social and environmental issues that would make your head spin in this “crossroads of the Pacific” where everyone one wants a piece of a very limited pie. It’s curious, nonetheless, how the many cultures here stay autonomous and well-defined while mingling and mixing just as naturally. Tolerance is not the right word for it. Acceptance, respect and Aloha is what makes it all work – and mostly it does work. There is a lot to be learned from this unintended experiment as the most singular “melting pot of nations,” drawing from an ancient tradition to hold it all together even if not perfectly.

    Hawai`i does have a lion’s share of social, cultural and environmental ills. And U.S. military might is more omnipresent than most people are conscious of. I grew up in Pearl Harbor and I find it overwhelming. I do grieve for what beauty and sweetness Hawai`i has lost. But I am hopeful that, like what is needed everywhere on the planet, we can stop and reverse the mindless march toward further destruction of what we all hold sacred.

    I am still awed by the meaning of the name given to this place: ha is the breath of life, wai is running water, and `i is spirit. Yes, I’m hopeful. We can all use a big dose of that.

    Much Aloha,


  3. Teresa Cleveland Wendel on said:

    I grew up in Seattle. Now I live in Other Washington.
    For those of you who don’t know Seattle, yes, there really is a chill.

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